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Do I Have Exercise-Induced Asthma or Am I Just Out of Shape?

Have you felt shortness of breath or experienced wheezing and coughing during or after exercise? While you may have worried you were just out of shape, you may in fact have a condition known as exercise-induced asthma. Also called exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (brong-koh-kun-STRIK-shun), this form of asthma is caused by strenuous exercise and occurs due to a narrowing of the airways in the lungs.

While a lack of personal fitness and exercise-induced asthma exhibit similar symptoms, asthma is often triggered by allergens or weather and temperature changes. To determine if your symptoms are actually the result of asthma, your doctor may perform a lung function test, which typically reveals asthma. Other tests that they may conduct include specialized pulmonary function testing, electrocardiography, echocardiography, allergy testing, or vocal cord tests.

If you have exercise-induced asthma, you should be able to continue working out by treating any resulting asthma symptoms and taking some precautionary measures. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 339 million people around the world have some form of asthma.

Symptoms and Risk Factors

The symptoms associated with exercise-induced asthma can happen during exercise, as well as soon after your workout is finished. Without treatment, these symptoms can last up to an hour or longer.

Symptoms include:

  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Experiencing tightness or pain in the chest
  • Feeling tired during exercise
  • Showing poorer than expected athletic performance

In children, another symptom may be avoiding activity altogether. If your child actively struggles with exercise or simply enjoying the playground, you may want to consider speaking with your doctor about an exercise-induced asthma test.

Scientists still aren’t entirely sure what causes exercise-induced asthma, but they do know that it is more likely to occur in people who already have asthma. According to the Mayo Clinic, about 90% of those with asthma also have exercise-induced asthma. Very high level athletes also more commonly have this form of asthma.

Certain factors can also increase the odds of developing this condition. For example, cold or dry air may contribute to exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, as may air pollution. Other risk factors include chlorine in swimming pools and chemicals from ice cleaning equipment. Finally, activities that require extended periods of deep breathing can also cause this form of asthma. Examples include soccer, swimming and running long distances.

Preventing Exercise-Induced Asthma

Living with any form of asthma shouldn’t stop you from exercising. For those with asthma, the first step is to maintain good control of your asthma. Closely managing your asthma can be very helpful in controlling any exercise-induced asthma flareups.

For someone who normally doesn’t have asthma, many doctors will recommend medication, particularly albuterol. This is a short-acting beta-2 agonist that works to prevent the contraction of the airways, and, as a result, it helps to control any asthma symptoms caused from exercising.

Other treatments that your doctors may ask you to try before exercising to prevent an asthma attack include asthma inhalers, bronchodilators or inhaled ipratropium. If you are prescribed an inhaler, you should carry it with you at all times, including when you exercise.

To help lessen asthma symptoms, it can also be helpful to do a warmup before a workout and a cool down after exercising. If you already know that you have issues with allergies or asthma, it is best to skip exercising on days with a high pollen count or when there are extreme temperatures. Both very cold and very hot days can worsen exercise-induced asthma. Exercising indoors is still an option, as is wearing a mask or scarf over your nose and mouth in cold weather.

Finally, certain infections, such as colds, the flu, or sinusitis, may increase asthma symptoms. If you have a cold or flu and have had previous issues with exercise-induced asthma, it is probably best to skip working out until you are fully recovered from the infection.

Activities to Consider

While maintaining a regular workout routine is possible with exercise-induced asthma, certain activities may be more conducive to managing your condition than others. Activities to consider include baseball, gymnastics, hiking, volleyball, walking, and wrestling. The reason these forms of exercise are typically better for someone with exercise-induced asthma is that they involve short, intermittent periods of exertion, instead of longer periods of exertion that are found in activities such as cross-country skiing, basketball, ice hockey, or running.

However, it is possible for someone with exercise-induced asthma to participate in more strenuous activities with the proper preparation, care and recognition of when they need to stop.

Treating Exercise-Induced Asthma

If you encounter someone experiencing exercise-induced asthma, first determine if they need emergency assistance. If they appear to be struggling to breathe, have blue-colored lips or can’t walk or talk, call 911 immediately.

If you are experiencing exercise-induced asthma yourself while working out, stop the activity immediately. If you have an asthma action plan from your doctor, follow each step. This may mean using an inhaler or whatever medication you use to treat your asthma followed by a period of rest. Do not resume any activity until you can breathe easily. If the symptoms return, stop exercising for the day and follow up with your health care provider.

Without treatment, exercise-induced asthma can result in serious health issues over time, including reducing your ability to exercise. The inflammation that occurs in your lungs combined with bronchoconstriction can increase the production of mucus in the airways. The buildup of mucus can lead to an elevated risk of developing certain infections. In turn, numerous infections result in scarring of the lungs, which is irreversible and can cause permanent lung damage.

Worried that you may have developed exercise-induced asthma? Columbia Allergy can help you determine the cause of your issue and decide on the best treatment options for your condition. We pride ourselves on offering a patient-focused approach, so we’ll work with you to meet your needs and goals. With convenient locations in California, Oregon, Idaho, and Washington, Columbia Allergy is here to help.

This is not medical advice. We encourage you to seek assessment and treatment from a trained medical professional to learn more about your unique needs.

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